Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Story Song - Joni Style


One of my guilty pleasures as an English teacher has been the story song. So often kitschy, songs like “Wildfire,” “Taxi” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” were always a hoot to teach in class. The latter, among my favorites, is classic Southern-American Gothic poetry that achieves its poetic value through the subordination of event to situation. "Ode to Billie Joe" seems a simple narration of events, journalism-style: the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge, Billie Joe jumping off the bridge - a pretty vivid picture. Yet the listener doesn't know what the pair are throwing off the bridge and we don't know why Billie Joe killed “hisseff.” Instead, what is revealed with utter clarity is the narrator's situation: she is spoken to and spoken about within the poem, but she herself is never allowed to speak; she is closely monitored (told to wipe her feet, interrogated for not eating, observed and reported on) but not recognized at all; she is kept in place by society, but is afforded no place in that society; on and on. In Aristotelian/English teacher terms, Bobbie Gentry's hit inverts the tragic focus on mythos for a lyric focus on ethos. It takes to heart Emily Dickinson's advice to "tell all the truth but tell it slant."

But let’s discuss the story song from a Joni perspective. the Joni perspective. From Blue, we get “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” Here we don't find the cheesiness associated with story songs, this is hardcore realism. Joni's motif usually encompasses snippets of relationships as we, the listeners, take what we will and fill in the missing pieces. Yet in "The Last Time I Saw Richard," we get a full-blown short story, start to finish. Whether about Chuck Mitchell (or Taylor or Crosby or Nash or…), that we don't know, but the scene opens with Joni recalling a barroom conversation three years prior in which an older ex-lover attempts to shut down her youthful enthusiasm with melancholy and disparate philosophical musings: "All romantics meet the same fate someday: cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafĂ©." Pure poetry. Richard projects his despair onto her, scoffing when she laughs when he says: "Roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies." Richard is bitter, though a youthful Joni cuts him off as he wallows in his pain while gushy love songs play on the jukebox. The scene takes place in 1968, around the time Joni was establishing herself in the Laurel Canyon/Hollywood scene. The song is classic storytelling that evokes the idea that as time progresses, we grow apart, we’re not the people we once were. Joni's eyes are "full of moon" and poor Richard Whiney Pants in his self-pity merely comes off as comical; the guy you just want to say, "deal," or prescribe Zoloft.
"The Last Time I Saw Richard" is a story song masterstroke that could have, indeed, been written by an Emily (Dickenson or Bronte).

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